There are around 2,000 medieval desert villages in England, but Gainsthorpe in Lincolnshire is perhaps one of the best preserved still visible.
The village, which is about a 20 minute drive from Gainsborough, still has many surviving features such as houses, barns and streets which remain as a group of earthworks in a largely untilled field.
Although the land is the source of much local interest, historians and archaeologists have been unable to say for sure why it was deserted.
Many of these features can be seen in aerial images and the village itself dates back at least 1,000 years, as it is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Gamelstorp”.
The Norman lord was Ivo Taillebois, and the Saxon lord at the time of the Norman conquest 20 years earlier was Ulgar.
The small village or hamlet was taxed as having only one carucate (the contemporary unit of a quantity of land that a team of eight oxen could take care of in a year) of agricultural land.
In 1208, when “Gameslestorp” was inscribed in a royal “fines” document (a list of legal land agreements), the village appears to have been rather larger.
There were at least 19 fields around the village, occupying 108 acres (44 hectares), not counting the open fields cultivated in common. The village also had a chapel, a windmill and a bridge.
However, the available evidence does not reveal how the village declined or precisely when it was deserted.
The lands of Gainsthorpe were allocated to the small priory of Newstead-on-Ancholme (a few kilometers northeast of the village) in 1343. The population may well have declined following the Black Death of 1348-139.
But the village lands were part of the domain of the Duchy of Cornwall in the late 14th and 15th centuries, suggesting that some village farms have survived, although the village itself had shrunk.
A statement on the English Heritage website shows how the village was deserted.
It reads: “The village was certainly deserted in 1616 when a survey for the Duchy of Cornwall noted” neither tofte, nor tenement, nor cottage standing “.
“At the end of the 17th century, Yorkshire antiquarian Abraham de la Pryme visited the site.
“In two separate and slightly contradictory descriptions he noted the crumbling foundations of about 200 buildings in three abandoned streets (in 1697), or about 100 buildings in five or six streets (in 1699).
“Asking locals for further information, de la Pryme learned that a plot of land called Church Garth – believed to be the site of the missing village chapel – was about 200 meters (180 meters) to the south. west of the ruins, on the left side of the road leading to Gainsthorpe from Kirton.
“The position of the church is uncertain: the surveyor of 1616 believed that its ruins were to the north of the remains of the village, near a surviving farm.
“De la Pryme recorded a local tradition that the Tudor thieves who used the village as a base were driven out by residents of other local villages, causing Gainsthorpe to be completely abandoned.
“He added, however, that in his opinion the village had probably been abandoned to sheep grazing, as part of a regional shift from arable land (crops) to more profitable pastoral agriculture.”
Many elements of the deserted village survive as earthworks in the remaining grass field.
There are three or four roads, visible as sunken lanes with dirt embankments on either side of a sunken lane. There are at least 25 buildings, spread over about 15 “crofts” (enclosures) next to the two east-west lanes.
Each farm would have been occupied by a family and used as a garden.
Stone buildings or “tofts” survive in the form of rectangular foundations covered with grass: the smallest buildings, about 20 to 30 feet long, are houses, while the larger ones, up to 55 feet in length. long, are barns.
The faint traces of parallel ridges to the north of the site suggest that the village had open fields of “ridges and furrows” cultivated in common beyond the crofts and private enclosures in the village.
A series of irregular hollows north of the site are quarries.
They seem to respect (rather than dig) the boundaries of crofts, suggesting that they were dug several centuries ago when the banks were much larger, possibly in the 16th or 17th century.
Other parts of the village – including the lost chapel and windmill – must survive under plowed fields to the south and west.